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  • The Cambridge Introduction to Early English Theatre
  • Claire Sponsler (bio)
The Cambridge Introduction to Early English Theatre. By Janette Dillon . Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006. Illus. Pp. xiv + 296. $75.00 cloth, $24.99 paper.

At last, the book early theater historians have been waiting for: an introduction that responds to the archival and scholarly work of the last twenty years, work that has transformed our understanding of early English theater but has been frustratingly slow to make its way into introductory texts aimed at a broad readership, many of which remain riddled with misconceptions and outdated information. Now, however, we have Janette Dillon's thoroughly new overview, one that sets the record straight about the nature, scope, cultural meanings, and significance of early performances.

The first and best move that Dillon makes is to abandon or at least seriously qualify the standard division of early theater into "medieval" and "early modern," a division that, among other failures, disregards the fact that many "medieval" [End Page 240] plays are extant in sixteenth-century manuscripts and continued to be performed well into Elizabeth I's reign. By focusing on plays in English from their earliest instances up to the closing of the theaters in 1642, Dillon is able to stress continuities and shared trends, while still leaving room for innovations. Such a broad scope brings with it a heavy demand for expertise in four centuries' worth of theater history, but Dillon ranges with seeming effortlessness over these years. Specialists may have minor quibbles with this or that (and medievalists will certainly wish for more coverage of early vernacular drama, especially of the lesser-known plays and fragments), but few could handle this historical sweep more capably.

Because she eschews a narrative of chronological change and development, Dillon is free to shape her material in a way that lets her track the key questions about early plays: individual chapters consider where the plays were performed, by and for whom, how they were written and produced, what sorts of generic divisions or performance traditions shaped them, and what purposes and cultural functions they served. The first chapter, on places of performance, is among the book's finest—richly illustrated with stage plans actual and conjectural and, as is the case with all of the chapters, filled with quotations from primary sources, highlighted for maximum visibility. In clear and accessible prose, the chapter discusses the various locations in which early plays were performed—churches, innyards, households large and small, city streets, village fields, and eventually purpose-built indoor and outdoor theaters—as well as the ritual, festive, and ceremonial occasions around which almost all vernacular drama before the 1570s was clustered. While acknowledging the differing effects of specific performance venues, the chapter emphasizes the connections that linked court, civic, household, and public playing, particularly the continued reliance on locus and platea (place-and-scaffold) staging, which Dillon finds not just where we would expect to see it—in early plays such as The Castle of Perseverance or the Digby Mary Magdalene—but also (and more surprisingly, given common perceptions about changes in staging) in London's commercial playhouses in the 1500s and 1600s. Dillon argues that performances in these playhouses "remained based on a principle of locus and platea" and that the stage itself, "thrust into and surrounded by the audience," rather than demanding new performance tactics, "could be used as yet another form of open space, or platea, while the tiring house doors or large free-standing props might function as loci" (49). One effect of this continuation of spatial arrangements from an earlier theatrical period is that individual scenes in these plays are essentially unlocated, so that, for instance, when Antonio, Salerio, and Solanio enter in the first scene of The Merchant of Venice, "no obvious props or dialogue indicate where they are as they talk, and the scene does not particularly encourage us to ask this question" (50). This conservatism carried over to props as well, Dillon claims, with the props listed in Philip Henslowe's inventories, for instance, echoing those employed in earlier performances. Even the innovations of the commercial playhouses were influenced by tradition...


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